Performance Collaboration – An Essential Element of a High Performance Culture
How can a leader and direct report respectfully and clearly work together for optimal results? We used to refer to this as “performance management” but in many organizations that term is used to describe what happens when someone’s performance has become a significant problem, so we needed to use a different term without that baggage. With Performance Collaboration the leader first takes individual and collective ownership of results, which then allows the direct report to own their own performance. This is Accountability through Engagement. There are some basic steps to try.
When Performance Collaboration is done well, the yearly performance evaluation is what we call a “non-event.” That is, there are no surprises. It’s just formalizing on paper what’s been discussed all year. When it’s more like the Academuy Awards, where with trembling hands someone opens the envelope, it’s a sign of a huge problem!
These are factors to consider before having a performance collaboration dialogue with an individual or team:
Focusing on system effectiveness before focusing on individual effectiveness. These steps should ideally happen first with a leader’s senior team. Please see our blog post on Making it Real for more detail. Most leaders see their teams/organizations as a collection of individuals rather than first taking a systemic approach. Individual performance must be seen within the context of the overall team/organization. Optimizing the overall team/organization performance, first, provides support for then focusing on individual performance. With a systemic approach, a leader will, in collaboration with senior leaders, and often with the input of others:
Clarify the overall Purpose of their team or organization, with input from the others while still making it clear what is non-negotiable. This should be as collaboraitve as possible and also needs to evolve over time, as complexity requires both ongoing collaboration and the willingness to shift as new data emerge.
Identify key values. This includes what do top leaders need to model, pay attention to, and hold others accountable for? See this short summary of key points from Edgar Schein, one of the most important voices in understanding and shifting organizational cultures.
Together identify Strengths and Challenges to achieving this Purpose. Be sure to help set a context of safety and trust where all perspectives are welcomed and valued, because in many organizations identifying challenges is seen as “negative” or “complaining” and people will hold back.
HabitsandPatterns. Organizations have habits and patterns, just as we humans do. Humans run on automatic pilot most of the time, not reflecting on why we do the things we do, and so do our organizations. When reflecting on strengths and challenges, try to step back and create enough space and curiosity to wonder about your organizational habits and patterns. It is often useful to ask newer members of your organization what they have noticed, before their eyes become acclimated to your culture.
Apply Circles of Influence to the Challenges: which are under our control, which are at least under our influence, and which are out of our control, at least for now. An example of things “out of our control, at least for now” can include the larger organization’s systems and processes, resources available, etc.
Craft a Strategy to build on the Strengths and address the Challenges as much as possible. Be sure this is seen as an evolving strategy, and that the team regularly comes back to re-identifying current strengths, challenges, and shifting the Strategy accordingly.
Dynamic Steering. Have a way of measuring progress over time. In complex environments there is no “right” path forward, and we use the term “dynamic steering” for making adjustments to the plan over time. “Steering points” are needed in order to do so. How will we know how we’re doing?
The leader takes healthy ownership for results. Particularly when there have been performance issues, it’s vital for leaders to first ask two powerful questions.
(1) What might this result have to do with me? That could include what the leader has been modeling, how much support and coaching have been given, etc. We worked with one leader who realized that she’d given up on one of her direct reports. She’d stopped giving him any kind of feedback, positive or constructive. She wondered how much this had to do with his ongoing problematic behavior. When she changed she was amazed at how much he changed in response.
(2) What might this result have to do with us/our context? This is a harder but more powerful question. It can include many of what might be surfaced in the Making it Real process. This question includes how we treat each other, clarity of roles and goals, allocation of resources, and the impact of our own culture as well as the greater culture in which we exist.
Said another way, high-level leaders understand that they’re evaluating themselves as much as their direct report. It’s about “us” not just “you.”
It is also important for the leader to ask whether the individual or sub-team has the capacity to be successful. To understand what we mean by capacity, please see our short handout on Levels of Development-in-Action.
In order to be in integrity in holding an individual or team accountable for results, high-level leaders consistently ask themselves these questions.
Doing these two leadership tasks creates the right conditions for ongoing Performance Collaboration dialogues. Performance Collaboration does not just happen with individual direct reports. These steps apply to sub-teams within the larger team or organization as well. Further, Performance Collaboration dialogues happen with both an overall role and with individual tasks that are assigned. In fact, it is essential that this process first happens with an overall role before it is applied to short-term tasks.
To make it simpler we’ll use the example of a leader collaborating with a direct report about a particular task or short-term role. Please keep in mind, however, that this should first happen with an individual’s overall role, and that it applies to groups of individuals as well.
Clarify the overall Purpose of the role or task. Why is this role or task important? How does it align with larger goals and objectives? What exactly is expected as a work product, and by when? What if any resources will be provided? Invite feedback and dialogue.
Have them repeat back what they’ve heard. This is not to test them for how well they were listening! If anything it’s a measure of how well the leader communicates. Many leaders run engaging team meetings, and then at the end make the mistake of summarizing what everyone has agreed to. People nodding their heads does not mean that they actually understand. It may mean that they think they understand (but do they really?). Or it could be that it doesn’t feel safe to say that something isn’t clear. In any case, it’s vital that each person says, in his or her own words, what they have committed to and by when. It really does not matter how clearly or eloquently a leader believes s/he has expressed expectations. What matters is whether there is mutual understanding, and this can only come by hearing from those who are assigned a role or task.
Identify the domain(s) that need to be considered. When we use the term “domain” we are referring to the Cynefin Complexity Model. Please see our short introduction. Is it a simpletask, with a small number of clear and repeatable steps, such as filling out an expense form? If so, this there would be no reason to have Performance Collaboration on how to do it, although there may well be a need for dialogue on why expense forms aren’t being consistently turned in. Is it a complicated task, requiring more steps and expertise but where results are repeatable because of the laws of physics, electricity, gravity, etc., such as designing a bridge? Or is it a complex task where there is no “one right answer” and the right steps emerge over time rather than being able to be figured out at the beginning (as can be done with complicated tasks). Complex tasks require more collaboration. Tasks that involve humans always have a degree of complexity.
Strengths and challenges. Ask the direct report to identify strengths and challenges to successfully accomplish the task. These can be internal strengths and challenges of the direct report, as well as contextual strengths and challenges. The leader adds to the generated list of strengths and challenges. As mentioned above the leader needs to create a context of safety and trust where it’s OK to identify challenges. In many organizations doing so is seen as being “negative” or “complaining.” We have worked in many organizations where it’s safer to say you can accomplish something, even though you’re fairly sure you cannot, rather than say that a task isn’t feasible. For some roles or tasks, it may be helpful to engage others in identifying strengths and challenges. It is also important to refer back to the general strengths and challenges that have been identifying on a systemic level (see above).
Circles of Influence. Together apply Circles of Influence to the list of challenges. Which are under control, which can be influenced, and which are out of control. Some challenges will be out of the control of the direct report but not the leader, such as allocation of resources, or agreement to put off some lower-priority tasks.
Strategy/plan. Ask the direct report to identify a plan for successfully moving forward, including key milestones. The leader collaborates on this process. The ideal outcome is that the direct report is responsible for the plan, including for setting up agreed-upon check-ins, and for identifying as quickly as possible any unforeseen barriers that arise so they can together determine appropriate actions.
Possible engaging of the overall team: One of the ways to increase trust and collaboration on a team is, when appropriate,having a team members present on what they’re accountable for, including identified strengths, plans and strategy, and to ask for any input from others to assist them in being even more effective. Facilitated properly this builds a sense of the team being “in it together” including for items with individual accountability.
No surprises. If this is done well, the leader should be pleasantly surprised at how often results are delivered on time and consistent with the leader’s vision of what was needed. Or, at the very least, the leader becomes aware of obstacles that have arisen so they can together decide on how to best move forward.